Public Service Announcement: Stop romanticizing independent authors and artists

Inspired by my editor’s post here about romanticizing writing.

Wow. Gayle’s right, on many levels, and this has been coming much longer than I thought. And, especially in the light of reading Gayle’s post, I think this applies to musicians too, but first things first: as a writer, there are some things that need to be said.

One of the things that I encountered as a writer is the impression that it must be so easy for me because I crank out one manuscript per year, and if I have a book out in hard paper form – whether it’s self-published or not – then I must sell hundreds of copies, even if they’re not in bookstores, and I must make loads of money. And if I can keep writing a book a year, even if I release them much later, then it must just come so easily, and I am working the day job just to compensate for financial shortfall.

Few things are further from the truth. I’ve been stone broke before I published my first book, and I’m still stone broke, but slightly less.

You, my readers, especially my regulars, know better than anyone: being an author is by no means easy work, my sales wholly depend on my marketing – which has been perking up, thanks to NaNo – and the day job gives me the means to keep writing, as well as doing a whole bunch of other things. I can’t really write or publish if I can’t make the money for my proof copies and printing the flyers. I can’t write about shows if I don’t have the money to buy the tickets.

Yes, I write because writing is my passion, my craft, and my life.

But I never forget that, first of all, it’s a job, and a damned difficult one. Because passion does not, does not keep my stomach fed. Working like a dog, however, will do that.

This is how it works: I spent two years – yes, years – formatting a manuscript. I no longer do it alone, because I got proof positive that I can’t do writing and editing at the same time. I am the one who designs the file, commissions the cover, designs the cover wraparound, distributes, etc. My editor sends me only her corrections, I execute them. It’s work. It’s time-consuming, and it is all done with the expectation of a paycheck, because let’s face it, you can’t eat proof copies or Word files for dinner. If I’m publishing online in a blog, I can’t use that blog to pay bills, because rarely is a blogging gig paid, and there are some blogging gigs which I will do at no charge because of the publication it’s associated with. But those are very precious few.

There’s also a reason that I never took a formal writing class in my life. The one time that I had contemplated taking a creative writing course in high school, I had a conversation with the person teaching it, who happened to be the assistant principal of the department. I got little to no concise answers on how to get published. I knew one thing: get an agent. That was the only part of the conversation that I found useful, because the rest of it was about 15 minutes of nonstop lauding of my writing talent and creativity, and how I don’t need to take a class to learn what I know. While flattering, truly, it’s also useless. I know that I have a measure of talent for the art of writing, but at the end of the day, art only goes so far. Getting an agent is something that I had no knowledge of coming out of that conversation, or of the English classes at college where I asked about it again. How did I learn about the process of publication? The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published. No joke; I got a publishing-for-dummies text to learn about it.

That does not bode well for the state of affairs for creative writing programs at colleges. How are these kids – who, without a doubt, have a talent, and a story to tell – going to cut it in the world of publication if they come out knowing next to nothing about it?

“But Kat,” you may say, “doesn’t the agent do that sort of thing? Why does someone have to know about the business end of writing if they’re on the creative end?”

Simple reason: how else would a writer know that they’re being taken advantage of? Whether trad-pub or self-pub, every writer should know and obey this basic rule of thumb: there’s someone, somewhere, waiting to take advantage of you and profit at your expense at all times. No one had ever disputed P.T. Barnum’s saying of, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And a writer is obligated to know the industry, at least the basic process flow thereof, if only to make sure that they’re not being scammed.

The sad truth of the matter is that for writers, there’s scams everywhere. That or there’s something being advertised for something other than what it is. Let’s take Penguin’s self-publishing option (also expanded upon by Gayle), just as an example, and let me now ask you this, after you see the fees for it: are you sure that this is a publishing option?

If you said yes, then you need to look up the meaning of a vanity press. A vanity press and self-publishing is not the same thing, and know this: a person can, for all intents and purposes, self-publish for free. In the world of publication, the money flows to the author, not the other way around. In other words, a reputable publishing medium of any sort, trad or self, should never ask for money up front. I’ve paid for my proofs, yes, but I had the option of publishing without the proof copy. CreateSpace has that option, but since I’m a nitpicky perfectionist and like seeing what the public will get beforehand, I buy the proofs. I also buy the expanded distrib plan, because it makes my books available in print overseas, but again, it’s an option. E-publication is free through Amazon, B&N’s PubIt and Smashwords.

So why is it that people are asked almost a clean hundred for self-publication with Penguin?

The answer is simple: profit. Penguin knows that there are some people – natch, a lot of people – who don’t know the publishing industry, but want to write, and see it through the rose-colored glasses of “I’ll just put my work out there through these people, and it’ll be great from there!” Uh, no. Not the way this particular thing works. You put your work out there, but you don’t do it by printing it through a particular medium. You do it through relentless marketing. That’s how Amanda Hocking managed to get millions sold: she worked like a dog for it, and it had paid off. Penguin doesn’t watermark their self-pub book jackets with their little logo. But they will happily charge you a hundred to print through them, plus a cut of your sales (this bit is standard, cut of the sales is par for the course). As what, a start-up fee? Sorry. I can print via CreateSpace on demand, and it’ll cost me absolutely nothing at start-up.

But to come back to the original topic, this just goes to show you that people have this rose-colored view of the writing world, and sometimes, the worst offenders are the ones in it. They believe that they had written the next great epic opus, and agents will flock towards them, and they will sell in the numbers of J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, et al, and all will be great in the world, and head out into publishing with almost no facts whatsoever about the nature of the business. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what writing is: a business. And an incredibly cutthroat one at that. Whether the stories written are great or not, there are some very harsh realities to be considered, and there are woefully few people in the world who are willing to speak to those realities.

No one mentions that getting an agent is a next-to-impossible task, which is why self-publication has been booming as a medium. No one mentions that for every reputable publishing house in the traditional spectrum like Simon & Schuster, there are places like PublishAmerica, who are just waiting for the perfect patsy to come along to profit off their backs. And definitely, no one mentions that if you’re going to go the self-pub route, you have an uphill battle to be taken seriously first. No one also mentions that it is a very hard fight to fight if you want to make money exclusively from writing.

And most importantly, the story written does have to stand out and be stellar for success. Because while Stephenie Meyer may be the perfect example of crap selling well, it will not disguise the fact that what she had written is terrible. Never mind the spelling and grammar, if the story isn’t told in a way that keeps the reader’s attention through the entirety of the story, then it is not a good story. I’ve read plenty of self-publishing stories that are nowhere near as well-plotted as they could’ve been. Excellent writing style, but the story is crap. But the thing about it all is, there is very little honest critique to offer in creative writing education. To become a good writer – key word is good – a writer does need to hear that their work needs work, or that their work is not original and has been done before. Instead, everyone hears how great it is. That’s not going to be conducive to artistic growth.

Now, to touch onto the musical romanticizing.

I have a friend – and I’m sure that a lot of people have those friends too – who is of the opinion that being a musician is easy, and especially in jazz, you get paid oodles of money to show up, play the horn or the guitar, and that there’s nothing to it, just get on stage and play.

Yeah, right.

Gear needs to be set up. And gear needs to get to the show venue in one piece; there have been more than enough instances of airlines smashing up instruments because they were checked as luggage, even with a hard case. Sound man needs to have the instrument mics, amps, and other gear set up. There needs to be one last rehearsal and a sound check, regardless of whether or not the full band is gathered. And all of that is to take place about four hours before the show, and heaven forfend the flights get delayed.

And, again, there’s people in the wings waiting to profit at the musicians’ expense. In fact, there’s been some hue and cry over why people have to pay even a nominal ticket price to attend a show. By this I mean $15, $20, $30 for a concert.

Hello, good morning  – there is no one involved in a show of any kind who does work for free. In jazz especially; in light of the multiple flips of radio stations, some people get the impression that hey, the money comes from somewhere other than my pocket, and they’re just doing this because they love it, and to have a good time, and so on.

No. Passion is passion, but it’s also very intense and grueling work. And passion does not keep the lights on without work.

That and really, to engineer any sort of a music show, there are people in the background needing to get paid somehow. A club may or may not have a budget for putting on a show. But the booking agents need paying. The crew and stagehands need paying. The band members need paying. And all of them get paid for working. They have bills to pay too, and so does the headliner.

And yet, I have people asking me, “well, you hang around the music world, it’s so easy, right?” And each time I tell them, “I’ve yet to see them have it easy in any way, shape, or form.” The rose-colored glasses must be welder’s goggles, I swear.

The romanticizing does a lot more harm than good, whether it happens from the outside looking in, or from inside the mix. While people get attracted to the outside glitz and glamor of being a writer, being a musician, being in the entertainment world in one capacity or another, few people stop to consider the work involved, and get quickly disillusioned when they realize that this requires putting a lot of effort and learning forth. And you never stop working and learning. It’s an ongoing process, and you have to roll with the punches and absorb every lesson possible, no matter what your creative medium is.

The only thing worse is when the audience realizes that enjoying something like music, a good book, a concert, etc. involves paying money for it. Oh, the horror of shelling out $3 for a Kindle book! Those self-published indie authors should be grateful they’re just getting read, shouldn’t they?

/gag.

What the hell is with the entitlement? Nothing in life is free. It’s just that the work of us writers, and musicians, and fine artists, and photographers, is meant for aesthetic enjoyment. Not even a public park is free, it’s maintained by people who need to get paid, even though it may seem that a person goes into a park without an admission fee. In actuality, a small portion of your local tax money goes towards maintaining the very park that a person would go to and think doesn’t involve work past putting up.

And if you are a creative individual who believes that I’m just being a mean bitch and am “discouraging” people by telling them that there’s work involved, then I will be blunt in telling you to have fun paying your bills.  Same goes if you think I’m a mean bitch for telling you to pay the money to support the independent artist/writer/photographer in your life. Being independent just means there’s more work do to, and, again, nothing is free.

TANSTAAFL = There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. One of my favorite acronyms.

K.G.

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